Odds and sods – Part 3

A belated recognition of an injustice

 It is hard to know what to think about addressing a grave injustice many years after it occurred. It does nothing for the individual although it may erase a blot which needs to be addressed.

Those thoughts came to mind with the announcement that the Biden administration had reversed the 1954 decision by the Atomic Energy Commission to revoke the security of Robert Oppenheimer who was known as ‘the atomic bomb’s father’ having headed the team of brilliant physicists and engineers who were involved in the Manhattan Project.

At the height of the McCarthy era Oppenheimer’s security revocation was, according to the AEC due to ‘fundamental defects’ in his character. In fact his real sin was lobbying for international control to avert nuclear proliferation and the nuclear arms race. He also opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb.

In doing so he attracted suspicion in the minds of the feverish reds-under the beds campaigners and the enmity of Edward Teller – another physicist whose attitudes to nuclear weapons was best illustrated by Peter Sellers Dr Strangelove character widely believed to be based on Teller.

Partial exoneration came in 1954 when an AEC lawyer found that the system had failed and that a “substantial injustice was done to a loyal American.”

The whole sorry saga – so typical of the US then and now with only the cast of subverters and threats changed – will soon get the Christopher Nolan treatment in a film, Oppenheimer, loosely based on the American Prometheus biography of Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Cillian Murphy of Peaky Blinders fame will take the title role.

And looking on the historical bright side, as my friend John Spitzer mentioned at Christmas lunch, it took Galileo about 350 years to get his papal condemnation lifted and for Oppenheimer it was less than a century.

On matters nuclear

 Once again we are told nuclear fusion is on the way after the December 13 announcement by the US Department of Energy that a milestone in fusion ignition had been achieved. The experiment was so successful that it produced enough energy to boil a kettle.

As Science magazine said (15 December): “The tremendous media attention to NIF and ignition amounts to a distraction – and a dangerous one at that,

“As the history of nuclear fusion since the 1950s shows, this complicated technology is not going to produce cheap and reliable electricity to light bulbs or power computers anytime in the foreseeable future.”

The science and technology writer Dina Genlina also warned “It’s not about to solve climate change”.

But to the fossil fuel flaks that’s not important. The important thing is to focus on promises of technological fixes (from hydrogen to fusion to carbon capture) and argue that action on climate change will come from these technological fixes rather than tackling our fossil fuel usage.

Political party factions explained

 Rachel Gerson and Ariel Fridman of UC San Diego, have discovered the secret of why so many political parties are riven with factional disagreements and hatreds.

In a report in PNAS (8 October) they find that individuals prefer to harm their own group rather than help an opposing group.

They studied five groups in the interests of understanding more about how “Group-based conflict enacts a severe toll on society, yet the psychological factors governing behaviour in groups remain unclear. Past works finds that group members seek to maximise relative differences between their in-group and out-group. This finding derives from work about how decision-makers approach trade-offs.”

A classic case study of this problem was Montgomery where only ‘White’ residents were allowed to use the publicly funded swimming pool. In a 1959 court case a Federal Court ruled this unconstitutional. The local Council had a choice – admit African American swimmers or close the pool. The local Council decided to close the pool thereby depriving all the locals of either race access to the pool.

Their conclusion, rather than people being driven by maximising the benefit to their in-group instead their concerns about out-group identity drives their behaviour.

From the ALP in the 1960’s to the contemporary Liberal Party; from resident action groups to right and left wing grouplets we can see the same phenomenon at work.

….not that hatred of the other is diminishing

 A Science Advances article by Erik Santoro and David. E. Broockman of Stanford and Berkely respectively examines whether cross-partisan conversations reduce polarisation.

They conclude: “Organisations, activists, and scholars hope that conversations between outpartisans (supporters of opposing political parties) can reduce affective polarisation (dislike of ourpartisans) and bolster democratic accountability (eg support for democratic norms).”

Yes they can they find – but only on certain topics such as talking about the weather or the perfect day you can imagine – but not if you talk about politics.

As they say: “Americans who support Democrats and who support Republicans have never disliked each other more – a phenomenon known as affective polarisation. They cut short Thanksgiving dinners with each other, avoid dating each other and discriminate against each other.

When reading their findings it’s easy to fall back on the subversion of the phrase – only in America – which Americans use to describe things they think make their nation superior to all others but which much of the rest of the world has invested with wry irony.

A bit more on Brexit

 Further to the previous blog looking at the self-harm Brexit has inflicted on Britain the Centre for European Reform (CER) think tank has estimated that Brexit has reduced British GDP by 5.5% and cost 40 billion pounds in tax revenues in the second quarter of 2022. Indeed, the study’s author John Springford, concluded that tax revenues would be 40 billion pounds higher on an annual basis without Brexit.

If we add to this the various pandemic rip-offs on services, unusable defective protective clothing, bungs as finders fees to Tory donors and lots and lots of contracts to the usual consulting suspects such as McKinsey the total is probably close to the multi-billion pounds the Tories claimed Brexit would deliver for the NHS – the body now crippled by strikes, exhausted staff, bureaucratic structures and poor quality facilities and equipment.